Haydn Ellis Distinguished Lecture: Julian Hodge Building, Cardiff University, 18/11/15.
After much, somewhat inexplicable controversy, in the will-she-won’t-she debate now coined as Greer-gate, Cardiff University finally welcomed Germaine Greer. Her talk, on the worryingly ever-relevant subject of ‘Women and Power’ (or rather, ‘women and their total lack of power… isn’t that bloody absurd and ridiculous?’), was nearly overshadowed by the maelstrom of protest around comments she has made about the relationship between transgender individuals and their right to identification with particular biological definitions of gender. We will come back to this later, but for context it is important to first establish the trajectory of her argument.
The aim of the lecture was to contextualise the various struggles of the women’s labour and rights movements over the 20th Century. From Suffragettes and strikers to pro-abortion campaigners, she argued that when it comes to enacting change the illusion of power has meant that the price of victory was and continues to mean a compromise of the guiding principle behind the struggle. She argued that equality is a conservative aim, it seeks out and propagates the status-quo when actually something more radical is needed. It often signals the subtle evasion of change as it sidesteps the central justification for the movements. As a consequence, it removes the dynamism, the possibility for actual, meaningful change.
The lecture itself centred around some examples of the illusions of power which have both underpinned and undermined some of the more notable successes of women’s rights. She argued that the women’s suffrage movement, whilst making gains, did so only by sacrificing the fundamental principle on which it was based. The first women to receive the vote were both moneyed and over thirty, which in the context of the times meant they were far more likely to be both conservative and heavily pressurised by the men who controlled much of their lives. This was not the radical reform that many women were fighting for, and its capitulation served to not only maintain the status quo but pressurise women to withdraw their efforts and re-focus them on promoting conscription. This double bind was a political sleight of hand which simultaneously ended the argument and meant the establishment got what they really wanted.
Greer then went on to discuss abortion law, a notably controversial topic but one which is still at the fore of debates around a woman’s right to govern their own body and determine their own lives. We in the UK feel that there is an element of choice but the conditions around this betray this as the fallacy it is. A woman still cannot simply request an abortion. Historically she had to prove she was mentally unstable or not capable of caring for a child, which was often both humiliating and degrading, and now, she still needs to justify her decision to two doctors who then have the right to refuse. It is important to note here that the question at hand is not whether abortion is ethical but whether women have again settled for something less then their agency should entitle them too. Why should a woman have to justify their request if it is genuinely their choice?
Greer then outlined how equal pay is perhaps the clearest example of the principle being out of step with reality. We have the principle of ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ but we don’t argue about how work is valuable, or whether work can even be intrinsically valuable. Does it even make sense to say that work has a value? Despite this being enshrined in law, it is not upheld, women are paid less then men, not only for equal work but because of the kind of work they do. Traditionally female dominated workforces include part-time labour or no-hours contracts which means they have little-to-no in work benefits and an unsteady income. Women are also still having to make the choice between work and a family whilst feeling guilty for every possible outcome. If they choose family, they feel like sell-outs because they are ‘sponging off the state’ or their partners. If they work, they are harangued for neglecting their children and often feel that they are missing out.
Again, the central question should be, how does this demonstrate a choice? Where is the sense in penalising women for having the biological responsibility of childbearing; a risky process even in the UK. The possibility of having a child does not impair a woman’s capacity to work hard or raise her children so why does it preclude her in so many instances from doing either to her satisfaction? Increasingly women are deferring having children in an effort to establish themselves in a career and finding that they never have the chance, and many women, though desperate to do so, cannot even return to work or education because childcare is prohibitively expensive and employers, universities and schools are unaccommodating of their family responsibilities. Single mothers are vilified in the press and pregnant teenagers are blamed for not taking better control of their own bodies; as though having an a-priori understanding and respect of your body is an innate part of being a woman. Again, the guilt is tied to the illusion of choice. See it for what it is: an impossible bind of self-inflicted misogyny and the guilt is gone.
I wish I could say that Greer’s closing remarks were more positive then her argument but they were not. The fight has been too easily and too often abandoned, it has been given up for the illusion of advancement and for this we have ourselves to blame. She does not feel that the answer lies in men – it would fit with her argument that this is just another way of selling us the lie of our own emancipation. The heart of rebellion has been torn from our society, and with it the possibility of change. We cannot protest, without polite notice and approval. We cannot fight our employers with no access to legal aid and effective union support. We cannot even rely on ourselves as often we are simply under too much pressure already. Increasingly the response is apathy and confusion and perhaps this is in part the fault of the equality movement. Equality is a valid ambition in many senses but it also distracts from these issues which are peculiar only to women; menstruating, child-bearing, attaining any kind of representation or power or influence.
Ironically, given the controversy surrounding the lecture, this is also an argument that Peter Tatchell gave during a talk for How the Light Gets In festival in 2013. Unchecked, equality can dissolve into the tyranny of the majority, as it seeks to homogenise a plurality of experiences and need. The best way to control is to assimilate and this is what equality wants. Tatchell was arguing that the LGBT community need to work together to protect all of the individuals within it, not just those who are more socially acceptable. This is perhaps at the heart of the misunderstanding about Greer’s comments about transsexuality.
I imagine that an admirable and slightly stubborn refusal to compromise (which is again understandable given her argument) stopped her from elaborating on the argument in case it seemed like an apology – one which she has no obligation to give. Being a woman is not straightforward; there are the biological and social constructs, the expectations and the self-inflictions. To want to lay part-ownership to a highly problematic and often nonsensical notion of gender seems misguided even if well-intentioned. Greer stated that we should be working to dismantle the limited and polarised notions of gender because they do not help us understand ourselves.
The issue is then that of voice. How do we protect and enlarge the space for these debates in a society in which there is an increasing trend of censorship? The snoopers charter and the Prevent agenda, which has been welcomed by universities, are operating within the backdrop of the general high-handed and increasingly censorious leanings of so-called liberal establishments. Universities, and their students’ unions should be the place where people come together to argue, protest, mobilise or just mutter at the back of a lecture hall about what an idiot the speaker is. All these things are legitimate acts of dissent but trying to prevent someone from speaking because they offend is playing into the hands of those who really have something dangerous to say. Without debate we have no choice and without choice there is no freedom. Maybe this is simply the inevitable trajectory in which we are moving. The equality drive will stamp out diversity and the marketisation of education means that institutions will be increasingly controlled as people have more to lose (not least £30,000 worth of debt and nothing to show for it if you get disciplined for handcuffing yourself to the Chancellor). Universities, the homes of thought, are increasingly where you auction your present and your future to the promise of a Browne-report backed lie about your potential earnings – as though that is the only thing of value. The NUS, among others, is letting down students with their government-pleasing campaign of censorship and it’s to all our detriment. Coming after the shameful way that they continue to sell out students during repeated rounds of cuts it feels like their politician-in-waiting posturing is doing nothing for the student’s having their loans sold off, campus services privatised, fees trebling with more likely to come, DSA being dismantled and accessibility discarded. Social mobility has ground to a juddering halt and without debate we have no tools to fight this. Looking around it is not only women who are in this predicament, though their issues must be taken seriously for their own sake. There is no reason why we cannot share solidarity as a principle and freedom as an aim. Surely, after all, there are better things to be bloody angry about than whether a 76-year-old woman is being ‘objectionable’.